It hasn’t been a consistent event for years now, not since my grandfather passed away, but Thanksgiving in my family means Renfrew County and the farm on which my grandmother grew up.
I don’t think I’ve written much (or anything) yet about the farm. It’s going to feature heavily in the next edition of Scarface, the ongoing saga here of how I tore chunks out of my beautiful face. But the outdoors, the wooded and watered places in Ontario, feature heavily in my growing up, and in how I rejuvenate myself, and I think it’s time I pay them their due. All of them, in one shot. Because they’re all important to me, and they deserve their time in the spotlight, at least once.
Algonquin Park is, of course, the big one on my list. My mom’s side of the family has had a lease on Canoe Lake for nearly a hundred years, and I was there in late August to visit after a couple of consecutive summers away. The building has been totally renovated–replaced, really–from the small shack that was there when I was growing up. It’s homely on the outside and gorgeous warm wood on the inside, and it makes the place feel totally liveable. There’s finally enough space for the property to be the centre of the Canoe Lake social scene again, the same way it was back in the day when the original house was huge and noisy with laughing cottagers and residents.
But the chance of that happening is slim. We’re not there; there are a lot of things the family is doing. The main proponent of restoring the Park cottage to its former glory and relevance to the lake is, tragically, no longer with us. The legacy of the Stringers of Canoe Lake is broken since the days of the immortal Wam and Jim (left and right, below), who you can read about in basically any Roy McGregor book about Tom Thompson. (The boys were involved in the exhumation of Thompson’s body back in the day, and Jimmy famously claimed to have Tom’s shinbone hidden away).
More than that, though, the reality of it is that we may just not have access to it forever. There’s some risk of the cottage moving out of the family. It’s an expensive lease, and there are three incomes feeding it, not four. My eldest cousin and I want desperately to contribute, but with me just out of school and her just finishing there simply isn’t capital available for it.
The Park will always be open to us. We can always go in tripping, launching our canoes at the Portage Store or from Kiosk. We can drop the name Omer Stringer (my great-uncle) or Wam and Jimmy, Mammy and Pappy, or Doug anywhere in the park and we will instantly be recognized as those Stringers–the ones who were instrumental in the establishment of Roots, of the Taylor Statten Camps, who are synonymous with the Tom Thompson mystery, the Beaver Canoe series, the artistry of paddling, who ran stores in the Park and were guides and rangers and anything you can imagine. Many will know David of Camp Tamakwa, and his fascination with Dippy boats. We will always have friends and neighbours living in Marion Stringer’s old house or at Pud’s Point and Stringer will always be emblazoned on Potter’s Creek, Canoe Lake, as the driving force of that culture.
But I’m a LaForce, in name, not a Stringer, and it’s not just about tripping and paddling and stories around the campfire. It’s about being connected to the land, the place where my family became what it is, why I am who I am and why if you know me you will frequently hear anecdotes or metaphors relating to canoeing and why I can have a difficult (albeit also expansive and formative and often fun) summer, go up to the park for two days, and come back to the city totally centred and more at peace than I’ve been for the last several years.
Even if we can continue to afford the lease, there’s an incentive to sell on the part of some family members involved. I don’t begrudge them that at all, but I know it would be shattering for me. I don’t know how I’d stay sane without it. I mean, there are other places that are equally special to me (in fact, I’ll talk about them shortly) but none really have the raw power of Algonquin.
It makes my heart ache to look at this photo, knowing that I may lose this place some day, if not through my family’s sale of the building and lease then from the province simply not renewing the lease. How do you process losing something this beautiful?
The consolation is that, while “the Park” may not be forever, it still very well may be. And it will always be open to us in a way, and we will always have that history. I just want the land. I want to be able to lie down in cool grass and look up into a sky that is so full of stars that it’s salt-and-pepper instead of black. I want to make my canoe dance in the same water that Omer and my aunt Karen did. I want to dive in water so cold it makes my ears hurt and get out feeling like I’ve replaced my body with one that’s brand new and tuned up. That place is me.
Of course, it’s not the only place that’s me.
“The Park” is one place of immense natural beauty, but there’s another much closer to us that’s frequented more often. My dad built “the cottage” with his brothers and dad when he was a teenager. It’s in Renfrew County, and while the lake isn’t as big or as fresh as Canoe Lake and it doesn’t have the hundred-year family resonance of the Park, it’s still got its moments.
And while the building is totally ’70s, it really is cozy.
What I love about this cottage is its continuously-evolving state. Dad and I have been talking much more seriously of late about removing a couple of trees that encroach on the view, tearing down the original building and replacing it with a modern structure. My biggest priority? An enclosed boat bay. A garage under the deck with racks for our canoes and kayaks. Raise the whole cottage a few feet, or sink a new foundation down, so we can walk our boats in and out of the bay and not have to worry about them over the winter, or store them on the ground under the cottage.
Storing boats on the ground. This really hit me like a hammer-blow to the chest when I pulled out my favourite canoe this past weekend. I’d just finished climbing around the roof with Dad to replace the antenna wire with coaxial cable so that our little TV there will be able to pick up digital channels in case of a rainy day (CTV and TVO, both in HD! No CBC though, sadly). I came down, and with just enough time to sneak in a paddle around the bay before we had to head off to the farm to meet the cousins and Grandma, I crab-walked under the cottage and enlisted Little Sister to help haul it out and check it over for damage.
I’d known that the 14-foot Chestnut, one of Omer’s soloing canoes, was in deteriorating condition for years and would soon require a new canvas, if not a more dramatic overhaul, but I wasn’t quite ready for what I found.
The bold racing stripe was duct-taped over, presumably to mend a rotting canvas. It had received a coat of paint at some point but dirt was ground hard into the canvas. The deck had been punctured with an eye-hook and tie rope. The outer gunnels, dramatic light-coloured pine, were rotten and pulling away from the hull. The bold red finish on the interior was peeling, turning brown. And everywhere, dirt.
I had been planning on restoring it, but I thought that meant spot-finish, a new canvas, and a coat of paint. I should be so lucky.
Far from despair, though, I got excited. And I haven’t stopped being excited about the prospect of a total restoration. From disgust at the condition of the boat to absolute motivation and elation. I think I feel like Omer must have, judging from this photo from the Park:
I have the opportunity to turn this decrepit canoe into something that he’d be proud of, that I can keep within arm’s reach, that connects me (and by extension the cottage and my dad’s family) in a really profound way to the Park and to my mom’s family and to all the things that I feel make up this newly rediscovered and impassioned identity I’ve taken back for myself. And in thinking about it, in seeing the lines of the canoe rejuvenated by new canvas and new gunnels and new decks in bright pine and Omer’s bold signature flanked in black lines and the ribs and hull flashing heart red against blue water.. it was one of the most focused and peaceful headspaces I’ve found myself in.
And in spite of the split canvas, the rotten gunnels, and the peeling stain, it handles brilliantly. It’s coming back to Ottawa for the winter, where, bit by bit, it’ll get restored.
After leaving the cottage, we headed to the farm. My grandma (Mom’s mother) grew up there, and it’s been much loved by the “kids” in the family, namely my sister, my cousins, and myself. I discovered a pet love for archaeology there, excavating collapsed outbuildings with the kids. We cut our Christmas trees there, breaking through the snow cover, crunching frozen juniper berries under our boots (to this day, drinking gin and tonic reminds me of Christmas and family). Thanksgiving, birthdays, Christmases, all happen out there. We made maple syrup there every year for a decade when I was younger, using a hand drill and tin buckets and a wood-fired single-pan evaporator, straining with wire and cheesecloth and the most advanced piece of technology we’d use was the tractor to haul barrels of sap to boil in the saphouse. Sacking out on a bearskin on a bench next to the saphouse after a long day of gathering.
That bearskin has a lot of memories attached to it. Cold noses and fresh air and hugs from Mom and the smell of woodsmoke and sweet, sweet sap on the air, meltwater dripping from trees and snow stubbornly clinging to the ground in March. I wonder if it’s still around.
There’s a truck near the old saphouse–immediately beside the relatively new evaporator building, actually. I can remember seeing it there when I was really young. Periodically, Dad waxes sentimental about it. It’s a really nice collector’s piece, and it would be fun as hell to drive. He’s mentioned getting a college or high school automotive tech class to do some restoration on it.
I’m starting to wonder if it’ll happen, ever, and for a while that was worrisome. I didn’t want to accept the idea that we might forget about our ambitions with the farm. The garden’s overgrown. The tractor is in who-knows-what condition. The farmhouse is not necessarily in disrepair, but isn’t being maintained as it once was, as Grandma doesn’t spend much time out there now that Grandpa’s gone. Last year I decided that I’d wrangle the other “kids” and at least open the garden again and plant some garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes, etc. But it was hard to get motivated about it. Unlike my canoe (as I think of it), which has my mom and dad and sister behind its restoration, the truck at the farm doesn’t have a lot of interest in it besides Dad’s passing fancies. And so, too, I felt that the farm was not really in peoples’ interest to redevelop into something we could enjoy.
I found out this year at Thanksgiving that that isn’t the case at all.
My cousin Erin also wants to find new life for the farm, and more than that, to develop it for sharing with others. Whether this takes the form of opening sap season to schoolkids, development of some space for programming (making paddles, learning to canoe), corporate retreats–whatever. Anything’s possible. Sky’s the limit. And Erin’s fiercely intelligent and has a mind for business, to boot. It can happen.
There are always ways of making things relevant again when they feel lost. The truck found new life artistically, even though it may well never run again. The farm won’t support a family as a working farm again, but it can very well find a new lease on life. The canoe will be my showpiece, much as it was one of Omer’s. And while the fate of the Park is ever uncertain, it’s inspired me to reconnect with who I am, and to appreciate all the corners of this province that have made me the person I am today in a much deeper, more personal way than I ever have before.
Paddle your own canoe, guys and gals.